Ul­ster’s hopes of play-offs left grounded by soar­ing Ospreys

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - ALEX BYWATER

Ospreys Ul­ster

UL­STER’S play-off hopes are now all but over as they failed to get go­ing against an im­pres­sive Ospreys side at the Lib­erty Sta­dium. Les Kiss’s team didn’t de­serve to take any­thing from this en­counter as they were outscored three tries to one in Swansea. Ul­ster’s only ef­fort came in the fi­nal minute through re­place­ment Ja­cob Stock­dale, but by then the game was lost with the Ospreys crossing through Tom Hab­ber­field, Tyler Ar­dron and Brendon Leonard.

Dan Big­gar kicked three con­ver­sions and a penalty to leave the Welsh side in pole po­si­tion to reach the semi-fi­nals.

Ul­ster were met with a res­o­lute Ospreys de­fence as they looked for a way back into the game in the sec­ond pe­riod, and they also lost Ruan Pien­aar and Stu­art Old­ing to back and an­kle in­juries re­spec­tively. Fail­ure to take their chances at cru­cial mo­ments cost them dear and their hopes of sil­ver­ware are al­most cer­tainly over for the sea­son.

“It looks like that is it for us,” ad­mit­ted Ul­ster skip­per An­drew Trim­ble, sum­ming up his team’s down­beat mood. In truth though, they only have them­selves to blame and it will now take a mir­a­cle for them to join Le­in­ster and Mun­ster in the cham­pi­onship shake-up.

It had been a night­mare start for the vis­i­tors, Kiss’s men fall­ing be­hind inside eight min­utes. It was a sim­ple score too, Ash­ley Beck get­ting his hands free and pass­ing to Hab­ber­field, who crossed in the cor­ner. Big­gar added the touch­line con­ver­sion.

With­out the in­jured Bri­tish & Ir­ish Lion Jared Payne, who had failed to re­cover from an an­kle knock, Ul­ster looked stuck in the chang­ing rooms and al­though Paddy Jack­son got his team on the board with a penalty, the Ospreys were the dom­i­nant force.

In their Lions half­back pair­ing of Rhys Webb and Big­gar, the Welsh side had the game’s most lively op­er­a­tors and the out-half re­sponded to Jack­son’s ef­fort with one of his own to make it 10-3.

Ul­ster weren’t helped by los­ing scrum-half Pien­aar to in­jury in the 23rd minute, the South African re­placed by Paul Mar­shall. It re­mains likely that Pien­aar, who is leaving at the end of the sea­son, may well have played his last game for Ul­ster and with him ab­sent, they fell fur­ther be­hind be­fore the break.

Jack­son’s clear­ance kick couldn’t find touch and was run back with in­tent by man-of-the-match Dan Evans. Brush­ing through some poor Ul­ster tack­ling, the full-back linked with Hab­ber­field, whose pass found Ar­dron for a sim­ple fin­ish. It was a bril­liant team ef­fort, but from an Ul­ster point of view one that could eas­ily have been pre­vented. Big­gar con­verted.

With a 17-3 half-time deficit to over­come, Ul­ster needed a quick re­sponse. It didn’t come. The Ospreys were the ones us­ing the ball the bet­ter, and the vis­i­tors’ plight was summed up when Stu­art McCloskey’s clean break ended with a knock-on. The cen­tre was re­placed im­me­di­ately after by Old­ing, who lasted less than a minute as he was taken from the field on a stretcher with what Kiss said was a sea­son-end­ing an­kle prob­lem.

Those set­backs only served to ruin any plans Ul­ster had of a come­back, and al­though they had much more posses­sion in the sec­ond pe­riod, they couldn’t break through a black wall of de­fence. Charles Pi­u­tau looked lively, but the for­mer All Black knocked on when close to the line and re­place­ment Stock­dale in­ex­pli­ca­bly hacked the ball dead after beat­ing Sam Davies in a footrace to the line.

That looked like sum­ming up their day and al­though the re­sult was now done and dusted, there was still time for late drama. Re­place­ments Leonard and Stock­dale crossed within a minute of each other to bring an end to the scor­ing and al­though Jack­son drop-kicked the con­ver­sion, Ul­ster were left think­ing what might have been.

Scor­ers — Ospreys: Hab­ber­field, Ar­dron, Leonard try each; Big­gar pen, 3 cons; Ul­ster: Stock­dale try, Jack­son con, pen. Ospreys: Evans; Giles, Fono­tia, Beck (Matavesi 65), Hab­ber­field (Davies 74); Big­gar, Webb (capt) (Leonard 76); Smith (James 65), Bald­win, Mu­jati (Jones 54); Davies (Ash­ley 62), Ar­dron; Un­der­hill (Baker 67), Tipuric (Baker 37-40), King.

Ul­ster: Gil­roy; Trim­ble (capt), L Mar­shall, McCloskey (Old­ing 53 (Stock­dale 55)), Pi­u­tau; Jack­son, Pien­aar (P Mar­shall 23); War­wick (Black 55), Best (Her­ring 65), Herbst (Ah You 44); Tread­well, O’Con­nor (Van der Merwe 77); Hen­der­son, Reidy, Di­ack (Ti­money 62).

Ref­eree: J Lacey (IRFU)

Ul­ster cap­tain An­drew Trim­ble ad­mit­ted that his side’s sea­son is as good as over after their em­phatic de­feat by Ospreys

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